As indie rock has become increasingly fragmented with noise-pop nuances, techno-rati tangents or avant-folk aberrations, Carl Newman has served as a necessary home base of sorts. Tagged a power-pop icon for his endless supply of air-tight hooks as the default leader of the New Pornographers, Newman has only distilled that sound in his subsequent solo career. Prone to instantly catchy chord progressions and hummable choruses, with an effortlessness that belies their sheer durability, his songs never stray too far from pop formulas—but they don't cut corners either.
Though it's been about four-and-a-half years since his solo debut, The Slow Wonder, and almost an entire decade since the Pornos' debut hit in 2000, Newman's music maintains a remarkable consistency. More than simply bearing similarities in songwriting style—barely any time would seem to have elapsed between his records if heard side by side—it feels as if, no matter how often Newman revisits the same approach, the songs suffer no lack of potency. Considering his latest solo outing, Get Guilty, damn near every track could serve as an apt A-side.
"I could never see making a record and saying, 'Well, this is going to be just a bunch of leftover songs,' " says Newman, who bills himself solo as A.C. Newman. "Whatever record I'm working on, I want it to be the best one I've ever made."
That endurance mainly comes as a result of Newman's thorough, honed craft—one that frequently revolves around the almighty hook, yes, but rarely uses it as a crutch for flaccid musicianship. If Get Guilty dabbles in digestible riffs readymade for hipster iPod commercials, the album's off-the-cuff immediacy is offset by careful embellishments: songs triggered by impulsive sparks of brilliance, then fleshed out with painstaking development.
"Sometimes, the main thrust of a song will come to me very quickly, but it takes me months to finish it," says Newman. "It moves faster, at times, but it's definitely a building process: a snowball that only gets bigger and bigger. I'll start with just a drum pattern that I really like, then write a song that goes with it. Or I'll think, 'This is a really great chorus, but where's the rest of the song?' "
To illustrate: "Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer" may have begun as little more than a skimpy guitar progression and an arbitrary title, but in its finished version, it stands as one of the record's most unique tracks. Structured around a no-frills acoustic strum, alternating a handful of chords in a basic, head-bobbing rhythm, the song creates its texture through punchy drum-shell raps and perky melodica arpeggios, not to mention the warbled guitar whines that break down continuity altogether midsong. The same function is served by the percolating synthesizers and queasy guitar plucks underlying "Submarines of Stockholm," which accentuate the cadence with recurring siren blasts; or the scratchy violins and pointed tambourine shakes on "The Collected Works" and the cello sustain rooting "Young Atlantis" on its low end, while back-up vocalists Kori Gardner (Mates of State) and Nicole Atkins round it out with airy doo-wops.
What remains looped in your head a few hours after any A.C. Newman listening session is his knack for attractive pop structure. Rather than crediting some formula for spoon-fed radio fodder, he attributes it to a relative distance from songwriting for most of his formative teen years.
"I didn't pick up a guitar until I was 18, so I always approach it from a real fan's perspective," says Newman. "For me, it was a huge line to cross from being the person in the audience to the one onstage. It was a massive chasm, but when I crossed it, I got addicted to it."
With that addiction, though, comes Newman's singular flaw: repetition. Both in his work with the New Pornographers and as a solo artist, Newman too often becomes so enamored with his own lines—a hook, a lyric that trips off the tongue—that he'll ride them until the music fades out on him or comes to an abrupt stop. One such blemish can be found on album closer "All of My Days & All of My Days Off," which, as the title itself indicates, gets stuck in a loop trying to convert redundancy into persuasion.
"I know that I have a style that is hard to escape," Newman says. "When I make records, I'm always trying to do something different, knowing that, no matter what I do, it's going to end up sounding like me in the end." Then again, when that sound is as instantaneously addictive as his, that's certainly nothing to feel guilty about.
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